Rhode Island is a small place, and we tend to notice when our residents do big things. Growing up here, I couldn’t avoid hearing chatter about locals like actor Viola Davis, baseball player Rocco Baldelli, and boxer Vinny Paz. Now, our eyes have turned to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who grew up in Barrington, went to high school in Portsmouth, and earned a master’s degree at the Naval War College in Newport.
I wish I could say I’m proud of how Mr. Spicer has performed, but I’m not. As one of the world’s most visible Rhode Islanders, he has repeatedly given a distorted impression of my beloved home state and I’m compelled to set the record straight.
Rhode Islanders value facts. Our colleges and universities are world-renowned, and our largest daily newspaper, the Providence Journal, has won four Pulitzer prizes. Spicer didn’t make us proud recently when he repeatedly referred to an Islamist terror attack in Atlanta that never happened, or when, during his very first appearance behind the White House podium, he spread easily disprovable “alternative facts” about the size of the crowds at the previous day’s inauguration.
Rhode Islanders value religious tolerance. Roger Williams is credited with essentially inventing religious freedom when he established Rhode Island as a haven for outcasts, dissenters, and refugees in the 1630s. When Mr. Spicer defends the president’s religiously-motivated immigration and refugee bans — in one case, suggesting that even a five-year old traveler was grounds for suspicion — he does not honor our local heritage.
Perhaps most importantly, Rhode Island has a long history of principled resistance. Roger Williams was forced to flee Massachusetts based on his outspoken belief in “soul liberty.” Some argue that the American Revolution started here, in Narragansett Bay, with the burning of the British customs ship, the HMS Gaspee, in 1772. And since Trump’s election, thousands of Rhode Islanders have taken to the streets to protest in favor of women’s rights, climate science, a free press, government transparency, and welcoming refugees.
Spicer smeared them and millions of others when he recently told Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade that widespread anti-Trump protests were a "very paid, Astroturf-type movement," and "not these organic uprisings that we've seen through the last several decades," like the Tea Party. Protesting “has become a profession now,” he said.
Let’s take a moment to consider that claim. For that to be true, it would have to apply, in Rhode Island alone, to the hundreds of Providence high schoolers who staged a walkout on Inauguration Day, to the speakers — including Governor Gina Raimondo and numerous state lawmakers — and thousands of attendees at the following day’s Women’s March, and to the hundreds of feisty constituents who showed up to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s recent town hall meeting in Providence, pushing the meeting from a middle-school auditorium to the school’s front steps, where the senator spoke with a megaphone.
Maybe Spicer’s been away in D.C. for too long. The next time he visits home, I’ll gladly introduce him to fellow Rhode Islanders who are compelled to speak out in opposition to Trump not by cash but, like their state founder in the 1600s, by conscience.
In the meantime, I offer a disclaimer: Spicer may be the most famous spokesman in the world, but he doesn’t speak for me or my state.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, his hometown. He was the news editor at the Providence Phoenix until the paper closed in 2014. He teaches part-time in the Literary Arts + Studies department at the Rhode Island School of Design.